Why we don’t need scientific papers

There’s a recent piece by Stuart Ritchie in The Grauniad that argues that the concept of the “scientific paper” has outlived its usefulness and should be scrapped. I think there’s a lot in the arguments presented and the article is well worth reading. Indeed, I have made similar points myself a number of times on this blog relating both to individual papers and to the journals in which they are published.

In this post from a couple of years ago, for example, I asked the question: what are scientific papers for? Here is an extract:

I can think of two main purposes (which aren’t entirely mutually exclusive): one is to disseminate knowledge and ideas; the other is to confer status on the author(s) .

The academic journal began hundreds of years ago with the aim of achieving the former through distribution of articles in print form. Nowadays the distribution of research results is achieved much less expensively largely through online means. Nevertheless, journals still exist (largely, as I see it, to provide editorial input and organize peer review) .

Alongside this there is the practice of using articles as a measure of the ‘quality’ of an author. Papers in certain ‘prestigious’ ‘high impact’ journals are deemed important because they are indicators of status, like epaulettes on a uniform, and bibliometric data, especially citation counts, often seem to be more important than the articles themselves.

By the way, I put up a poll in that piece, which is still open. You can vote here:

The point – also made by Stuart Ritchie – is that the traditional scientific journal is a 17th Century invention and, as such, does not reflect the way modern scientific is performed and disseminated.

In fields like astrophysics and particle physics this anachronistic approach leads to absurdities such as papers with thousands of authors, many of whom won’t have even read, let alone contributed any writing to, the article. Reflecting on the publication of a paper with 5000 authors back in 2015, I wrote this:

It seems quite clear to me that the academic journal is an anachronism. Digital technology enables us to communicate ideas far more rapidly than in the past and allows much greater levels of interaction between researchers. I agree with Daniel Shanahan that the future for many fields will be defined not in terms of “papers” which purport to represent “final” research outcomes, but by living documents continuously updated in response to open scrutiny by the community of researchers. I’ve long argued that the modern academic publishing industry is not facilitating but hindering the communication of research. The arXiv has already made academic journals virtually redundant in many of branches of  physics and astronomy; other disciplines will inevitably follow. The age of the academic journal is drawing to a close. Now to rethink the concept of “the paper”…

This is the closing paragraph of Ritchie’s piece, which says much the same thing:

We’ve made astonishing progress in so many areas of science, and yet we’re still stuck with the old, flawed model of publishing research. Indeed, even the name “paper” harkens back to a bygone age. Some fields of science are already moving in the direction I’ve described here, using online notebooks instead of journals – living documents instead of living fossils. It’s time for the rest of science to follow suit.

It seems to me that the barrier to opening up the processes of scientific publication to these is that the more accurately publications reflect how science is actually done in the digital age, the more difficult it is for the bean counters to assess research quality or productivity. The academic publishing industry has cornered the market on bibliometric indicators so it rather than the scientific community gets to dictate how scientific quality will be measured. The tail is wagging the dog. Until that ends – and it will only end when we fairer ways of evaluating research – we will be saddled with the broken system we have now.

7 Responses to “Why we don’t need scientific papers”

  1. A lot of truth in this. I don’t know if it’s relevant, but I have noticed one curiosity when I publish papers on the history of physics. It’s not uncommon to have a historical paper read by thousands of people , but cited by only a tiny number. In my technical papers, the overall number of readers is usually much smaller, but many of those readers will cite the paper . I’m not sure what to make of this difference, but it plays havoc with my career stats!

  2. I would argue the other way, for two reasons: authority and accuracy.

    A science result gains authority either from the authors’ reputation, or from approval by a person with authority. The scientific paper is less dependent on the reputation of the author than other forms of communication, because of the anonymous referee who confirm that the paper is worth reading. There is misuse, of course, both by publishers and by referees. But it does make it easier for new people to make an impact in a field.

    As for accuracy, fields with rapid distribution of results do not show faster progress. (At least, that is how it looks to me.) It can become a ‘me first’ battle and science-by-press-release. Your ‘living notes’ sounds more like conferences where you can present on-going research. It doesn’t seem to replace the finished product.

    No doubt there are solutions, and we shouldn’t stick to the past. The current system is also open to abuse, and some publishers have become parasites. But we need to know what we want to achieve with changes.

    • telescoper Says:

      The trouble is that there are very few actual “finished products”. There are lots and lots of partial results presented as finished products only because of the need to publish. And referees are complicit in this process because they are under the same pressure to publish.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        What about the issue of references in a piece of scientific work? They might no longe say what thy said when you referred to them.

      • telescoper Says:

        That’s a good point, but I’ve noticed quite a few references that don’t say what their citation indicates anyway!

  3. […] few weeks ago I posted an item arguing that the scientific paper is an outdated concept and the whole business of research […]

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